Hate Speech Blocker is a new browser plugin that tackles the complex problem of online hate speech without blurring the line between freedom of speech and censorship.
Call it a spellchecker, of sorts – for hate. Typically, online hate spammers that get caught venting their anger on unsuspecting victims could end up with their social media accounts suspended or blocked. But Hate Speech Blocker doesn’t do that.
“It doesn’t prevent you posting. It just suggests that the words you’re using could be construed as hateful,” said David Marsh, Head of Technology at UK-based nonprofit, International Alert, a peace building organization.
The Chrome plugin analyzes text as it is being typed. If it recognizes a particular hate speech term, “it just flags it out to you,” explained Marsh in an interview. “It doesn’t stop you posting, but it suggests why that maybe a term that some people might not necessarily want to use online and how that could be construed as hate speech in that particular context.”
When potentially offensive words are entered into a Chrome browser with the plugin installed, Hate Speech Blocker checks the terms against Hatebase, a nonprofit online service that collects data about hate zones and derogatory terms in various parts of the world and “has the ability to reference the terms across different countries.”
“It looks across the whole gamut of hate speech – it could be religious intolerance, it could be more general online bullying,” he said.
“We all liked Hate Speech Blocker because it was so simple and direct, challenging hate speech before it is even posted. I look forward to finding out how successful it has been in practice,” said tech evangelist and digital skills expert Sue Black, who was on the panel of judges for a series of hacking competitions in London called Peacehack.
Hate Speech Blocker won the hackathons earlier this October. This year’s theme focused on hate speech and how technology and developers can help address it.
In some instances, hate groups have argued that blocking their rhetoric violates their right to free speech. But Marsh stressed that International Alert is “very careful” to avoid engaging in censorship.
“What we want to be very careful about is not closing down that space for people to debate things,” he said. “And we realize that there may be a very thin line between freedom of speech and censorship.”
Hate speech sometimes happens “on the spur of the moment,” perhaps in response to something people see online, for example. Marsh said International Alert understands that. “We just want to give people that gentle nudge to say ‘is that really what you want to say?’”
The hackathons have produced “all sorts of interesting ideas in our peace building work,” said Marsh, “be that around hate speech, be that around countering violent extremism and beyond.” And he hopes the continuation of the event will provide a real way of “engaging two communities that don’t necessarily work together that well – the technology and peace building sectors.”
Along the margins of the event, another potential “winner” emerged. While working with young people to give them the tools and confidence to combat hate speech online and offline, International Alert discovered that some of them were experiencing online abuse from offline friends who would later claim their accounts were hacked. The participants suggested developing a tool to help prove or not prove that an account was hacked at the same time online abuse was taking place.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he said. “… It gave us an inside track to fix the problems that they really face rather than the ones that we perceive that they are facing.”
Marsh hopes the Hate Speech Blocker plugin can be at least part of that conversation and a simple tool to make people stop and think before posting potentially harmful language online. And there are plans to customize it further for countries where International Alert works in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Myanmar.